When Below the Line caught up with director Stephen Daldry, he was in town for the kick-off to award season, as a Golden Globe nominee for best direction for The Reader—a couple of weeks ahead of knowing he’d be an Oscar nominee in that category as well.
Sitting on a hotel veranda, there was an even earlier award season event unfolding, as an AFI luncheon was letting out, and people—including one director Daldry would soon share Oscar nomination honors with—darted around trying to find their cars.
He became fascinated with trying to figure out what the particular event was, and how—from the way people moved—the power was distributed. A lot of it—for the few moments we “field observed” together—seemed to swirl around a blonde in a white dress, tended by a phalanx of dark-suited men as a stretch limo rolled up.
It was classic Hollywood stuff, somewhat amusing for a director who comes from British theater, and still takes much of what he learned into his filmmaking forays— which have included previously notable fare like The Hours and Billy Elliot.
The Reader tells the story of Hanna Schmitz, an SS camp guard—portrayed by Kate Winslet, similarly Oscar-nominated— who has an affair with a younger man, Michael Berg, in postwar Germany, while trying to keep her particular past consigned to obscurity. It catches up with her, as pasts often do, and when that jejune fellow—played by German actor David Kross—is in college, law school to be precise, one of the postwar trials for war crimes he’s invited to watch involves none other than Schmitz, an event which has resonance for the rest of Berg’s life.
When asked what directorial processes he deliberately carries over from stage—aside from the keen eye for observation and behavior, which he was already evincing—Daldry noted there was a “similar process of investigation” in both rehearsal periods.
In fact, he made sure there were a lot of “props in the rehearsal room”—which he commented was “unusual for film”—so that the actors could start “to discover the language of a scene.” He works in this organic way—filling the scene from the inside out—because “I don’t storyboard,” preferring the act of discovery.
“Rehearsal time is essential,” he avers, and towards that end, he likes to get a jump start on both the production design and costume construction, to let the actors become as familiar with their characters’ worlds as possible. For the former, he had Brigitte Broch, of Babel and 21 Grams fame, and for the latter, Ann Roth, about whom he says he’s been “lucky enough to work with twice.” (Roth is credited along with Donna Maloney.) During production design, even though he relishes being able to rehearse on finished sets when possible, he makes use of set models, especially in conversation with the director of photography. Or the case of this film, famously, directors of photography, since there were two—both likewise statue-nominated: Roger Deakins and Chris Menges. Deakins was slated to be the sole DP, but a delay in starting production and prior commitments by the lenser (who also worked on this year’s Revolutionary Road and Doubt) made it impossible for him to shoot all the way through. And so Menges—who had worked previously on the home-from-Iraq themed Stop-Loss, among many other films—was brought on, and, as Daldry says, “they know each other.” In fact, he continues, it’d make “a great Trivial Pursuit question: which scene is shot by who?” But there’s no answer from the director: “I’m not letting on,” he says.
He does let on that he was quite happy with the finished product, terming it “seamless,” and even— letting on a little—there were some scenes where an approach to a corner might have been done by Deakins, and the continuation was overseen by Menges. “Chris was very respectful of what had been set up by Roger,” he adds.
Of course, “seamlessness” isn’t always Daldry’s goal in moviemaking. In theater, you want to arrive at precision, since you “repeat eight shows a week,” and lighting directors need to know their cues, as do the other actors you’re moving on stage with. “Whereas in film, you’re not looking for repetition,” he allows. Instead, you have the ability to “see what opportunities arise during the shooting of a scene.” You have to make room, in other words, for lightning in a bottle.
But to make that room “you have to a crew that’s up to that.” And toward that end, Daldry couldn’t stop singing the praises of the German crew he worked with. Overseen by his “genius” first A.D., Richard Styles, he also had “great German locations” personnel, which was important because he describes the country as “being rebuilt massively.” Not from the war, but since reunification, so that even “pre-1989 Berlin is hard to find.”
What they found instead was the town of Goerlitz, which Daldry describes as one of the former East Germany’s “derelict cities,” which remained essentially untouched in the postwar period (though most of these are also being “renovated before your eyes.”)
Daldry likewise praises his “astonishing” German-based casting director, Simone Bar, who kept insisting the director look at the relatively unknown Kross for the younger incarnation of Berg (Ralph Fiennes plays the older version). The one hitch was that Kross’ mother “doesn’t want him to leave school,” but eventually things were worked out. In more ways than one: While Daldry prefers a type of “discovery” on his film sets, The Reader is also known for its very frank sex scenes between Winslet and Kross. To do them, Daldry would “work it out with Kate,” being “absolutely specific” about what was happening. Then Kross would come in, and the scene itself would be shot very quickly.
That quickness also marked the collaboration with continued editor Claire Simpson (who’d also cut the Menges-shot Stop-Loss, and was a previous Oscar nominee for The Constant Gardener), with whom he began assembling cuts “straight away” during the production’s first hiatus—while waiting for a change of seasons in several German locales. The editing took place in Germany, London, and New York, along with the scoring by another Daldry favorite, Nico Muhly.
Muhly, who assisted Philip Glass in his score for The Hours, is “the best young composer in America today,” in Daldry’s estimation, with an “astonishing faculty” to put the emotional resonance of a scene into music.
The director’s theatrical sensibility also included keeping playwright (and screenwriter, and fellow Oscar nominee) Sir David Hare close at hand for “fearless rewriting” during rehearsals and shooting, as he adapted German writer Bernard Schlink’s somewhat autobiographical book. It’s a process playwrights may be familiar with, but most WGA writers only know it as “someone else’s rewrites” after they hand in a script.
Hare is “one of my favorite collaborators” he says, of the writer who also adapted The Hours for him. Hare has also directed his own films, and while many directors might be threatened having another “helmer” so close at hand, Daldry—viewing everyone as part of the “troupe” making the film—says “I love it.”
Indeed, Daldry seems to feel that way about the entire process that brought The Reader from book to screen. And that passion is perhaps what’s being reflected in the bounty of award-season nominations coming his way.